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Niels Bohr Institute head: »We are part of NATO. Are we supposed to say no to working with our collaboration partners?«

Can you safeguard critical international research while collaborating with NATO? Some employees at the Niels Bohr Institute are critical of the new co-operation with the defence alliance. But their arguments are rejected by management.

They were critical. And their criticism was directed at their own management. But when the University Post spoke to the head of the Niels Bohr Institute (NBI) at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), he was not upset. Far from it.

»I see their criticism as something that just emphasizes how there is space for researchers with different opinions. This is what we do. This is our DNA,« says Head of Department Jan W. Thomsen with a direct reference to international researchers’ concerns about their future appointments after airing criticism:

»We are not a banana republic. We are a university with focus on critical thinking. I don’t hire people because they have to agree with me. This is important for me to say.«

And the young researchers from NBI, which the University Post spoke to last week, do, in fact, disagree with him. The reason: A future collaboration with the defence alliance NATO on a quantum research centre, and their concerns over whether some international research colleagues will find it difficult to work at NBI because of their nationality. The critics are concerned that collaboration with NATO can lead to greater secrecy about research results, and perhaps even compromise the department’s independent research. And they are dissatisfied with the process that led up to the announcement of the collaboration.

So their concerns are not just over a minor point of order.

READ ALSO: NATO centre co-operation is not »guns and ammo«

»We have done exactly what we usually do«

The process leading up to the announcement of the co-operation is, however, similar to the process in all the department’s collaborations and applications, according to Jan W. Thomsen. It has been conducted under the auspices of several different government ministries.

»In the course of such a process, it is not customary to involve either PhDs, postdocs, or other staff. Quite the contrary, it is a case-by-case assessment made by the researcher who is the main person responsible for the application. There are natural limits to involvement, as in all application processes. We have done exactly what we usually do.«

The funding for already existing research at NBI comes from many different sources. The Augustinus Foundation, for example, derives its wealth from the tobacco industry. The European Defence Fund. And DARPA.

»The latter are two foundations who have a clear military purpose,« Jan W. Thomsen says.

»At the moment, the funds for the NATO centre are from national sources. Researchers have, in the past, found it difficult to understand who it was that was paying their salary. We have had this discussion in connection with our meetings about the NATO centre. And would it not be nice to know who it is that is paying your salary?« Jan W. Thomsen asks rhetorically, and adds that this is something that management is open to.

Independence of research or business secrets

Another necessary discussion is about how open your research should be.

»We researchers want to share our results with each other. At the same time, we would also like to patent things for society. This is one of the major dilemmas in the world of research right now. Not just in the West, but throughout the world. It is a conversation that we are not finished with — not at all. But this is a conversation that we would need to have regardless of the NATO co-operation.«

To the University Post, PhD student Vasiliki Angelopoulou, one of the five critical physicists, said that she was concerned for the independence of research in a NATO partnership:

»We have some important values concerning independent research at the Niels Bohr Institute, and I am concerned that these will come under threat if we are not better prepared,« she said, with reference to the coming cooperation.

»We have never seen so much as a hint that someone wants to take away our independent research. But there are business secrets,« says the head of department and refers to the Danish University Act. He has confidence in the independence of research, and the balance in the upcoming collaborations with the Institute as a consequence of the NATO centre, where it is to carry out research in collaboration with private companies.

»We have found the balance between independence of research and business confidentiality when we have collaborated with, for example, Microsoft and many others. We’re good at that. We will also be good at it in this context.«

We are a part of NATO!

Both the critics and the head of department refer to dialogue meetings, and Jan W. Thomsen also says that he has held one-on-one meetings with the critics.

By way of contrast, he mentions that several permanently appointed scientists see great potential in the collaboration around the NATO centre – both financially, and as an attractive proposition to attract the best people from throughout the world. He is not the only one who has trouble seeing problems in the collaboration with NATO.

»We are part of NATO. Are we supposed to say no to working with our collaboration partners?«

On one point, there is no space for ambiguity in the Head of Department’s response to the critics:

»No one from the outside is going to decide who we can, or cannot, hire. This assessment can only come from the Dean and the Head of Department. Everything else is in contravention of Danish law,«  says Jan W. Thomsen. He concludes where he began by reassuring the five critics.

»We are always going to recruit the best, and at the University of Copenhagen there is plenty of space for disagreement.«